The story lines were many, and also different than any of the previous eight meetings between New Castle and Hampton the past three years. But the ending stayed exactly the same.
New Castle won.
In a game dripping with emotion that thrilled a capacity crowd, New Castle defeated Hampton, 57-55, in a PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal Saturday at Bethel Park High School.
New Castle's hopes of a perfect season and a PIAA championship lived on, and the Red Hurricanes (29-0) showed they have nine lives against Hampton. This was the ninth meeting in three years between the two WPIAL heavyweights, and New Castle won all nine. This was the fourth time the two teams played this year, and the win puts New Castle in the semifinals Tuesday against Abington.
New Castle has won 85 games the past three seasons, but as senior guard Anthony Richards said, "Other than the Lower Merion game earlier this year, this win was probably the toughest we've had in the last three years. For us to win the way we did, down seven at the half and with Malik Hooker in foul trouble, our guys are just warriors."
The many story lines created great postseason theater. There was:
* New Castle overcoming foul trouble to star senior guard-forward Hooker, who sat out more than a quarter in the first half with three fouls.
* New Castle playing superb defense down the stretch, holding the Talbots scoreless for more than four minutes in the fourth quarter as Hooker made one big defensive play after another and had an assist on a key basket.
* Hampton star Ryan Luther, a Pitt recruit, being held scoreless in the second half and taking only one shot in the final two quarters.
* Luther's twin brother, Collin, picking up the slack with a great effort and scoring 26 points.
* Robert Natale, a reserve New Castle guard, coming off the bench to score 11 points and making three critical free throws in the final 40 seconds while his dad, assistant coach Bob Natale, sat on the bench with his head down, too nervous to watch.
But when it was over, the wave of Red Hurricanes fans roared as the players jumped on each other in jubilation.
"We had never been down seven at halftime before, and not against a team like Hampton," said New Castle coach Ralph Blundo. "We just went possession by possession and really focused on the process, and not the outcome."
Afterward, Hampton coach Joe Lafko was philosophical, saying how proud he was of his team and the great careers of the Luther brothers, who both scored more than 1,000 points. But loss No. 9 to this New Castle team was especially painful. Hampton held a 34-27 halftime lead and had the Red Hurricanes gasping for their playoff lives after Collin Luther scored with 4:50 left to put Hampton ahead, 49-48. But Hampton didn't score again until Collin Luther converted a three-point play with 28.2 seconds left that only brought the Talbots within 55-52.
"To beat a team like New Castle, you need to have all your pistons firing," Lafko said. "If there's a lapse in one, you're probably going to lose. It has been an all-too-similar scenario for these kids and this coaching staff."
Ryan Luther, a 6-foot-8 forward, finished with 13 points, all in the first half.
"He didn't score in the second half? Wow," Richards said in disbelief after the game.
"Their defense really makes it tough on offenses," Lafko said.
For New Castle, Hooker and Natale both scored 11 while center Stew Allen and his brother, Drew, a senior guard, had 10 each. Richards had nine points on three 3-pointers and became only the fourth player in WPIAL history to make 300 3-pointers for a career, joining Highlands' Micah Mason, Chartiers Valley's T.J. McConnell and Chartiers Valley's Mike Colbert.
New Castle took the lead for good, 50-49, on Drew Allen's driving basket with 3:12 left in the game. Stew Allen scored off a nice pass from Hooker to make it 52-49.
After a missed 3-pointer by Hampton's Jack Obringer with 1:04 left, Collin Luther was called for an intentional foul on Drew Allen with 43.5 seconds left. Allen made one free throw and Natale made two 11 seconds later to make it 55-49.
New Castle had survived.
"Malik Hooker is the best player in the WPIAL, in my opinion," Blundo said. "You lose a player like that in the biggest game of the year, it's tough. Quite frankly, we were overmatched for a while without him."
But in the end, it all worked out for New Castle.
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: email@example.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.